Roaring Fork School District elections Q&A

RFSD school board candidates, from left: Lindsay DeFrates, Phillip Bogart, Jasmin Ramirez, Betsy After and Alan Kokish.
Taylor Cramer/Post Independent

The Roaring Fork School District is scheduled to add two new members to the district’s school board, following election day results.

While District D incumbent Jasmin Ramirez runs unopposed, others are battling for a chance to help shape the future of RFSD.

Candidates Alan Kokish and Betsy After will be facing one another for the District B seat. Meanwhile, Phillip Bogart and Lindsay DeFrates hope to represent the community in the District C chair.

Each candidate answered a questionnaire sent out by the Post Independent this past week. The questions include:

1. What made you want to run for the school board?

Kokish: I initially decided to run because I was very upset about the gender studies curriculum the district adopted as their K-12 sex-ed curriculum. Throughout my candidacy, I have gained perspective and respect for all the responsibility that comes with the job. The current board has worked to address teacher housing and retention, closing the learning gap between Latino and English-speaking students, and overall academic improvement. If elected I hope to build on the work of the current board.

However, there was a lack of transparency and community engagement in the adoption of the gender studies sex ed curriculum. Sixty percent of parent survey responses were against it, and most people are still unaware of the controversial material about to be taught to our very young children. I want to work to bring increased transparency and communication to controversial issues like this one.

Finally, school boards are increasingly being politically targeted and influenced. As a registered independent and small-business owner, I will bring a working-class perspective to the Board and representation to those who feel underrepresented. This needs to be done with respect for our entire community.

After: My children have had a wonderful experience in the RFSD schools and because of that I want to help the District effectively move into its next chapter. I have experience in policy, governance, stakeholder engagement, and financial management. I believe I can put my qualifications to work in service of our public schools.
After said her priorities for the school district are:

  1. Responsible, transparent leadership & smart fiscal management: Set an expectation of excellence and accountability for the executive staff and ensure that the annual budget aligns with our community priorities.
  2. Support educators: Increasing teacher retention through creative measures that go beyond the 2021 Mill Levy Override.
  3. Success for all students: Tackle the persistent achievement gap between Latino and white students.
  4. Open communication & deep community engagement: Improve the Board’s relationship with the community so that we can work together toward solutions that help students thrive.

DeFrates: I love our public schools, our students, and the teachers and staff who put their heart and energy every day into teaching and building safe, welcoming, and academically rigorous classrooms.

After spending six years teaching middle school in Carbondale, I know first hand how important it is to have the right facilities, curriculum and support in the classroom. Our students deserve rigorous expectations and the equity in resources to achieve them. That means making sure that all students have what they need, when they need it. It also means having experienced education professionals who can afford to live and work in the same community. I also believe we need to strengthen the trust and relationship between the Roaring Fork Valley community and the School Board and District leadership.

I decided to run because I know that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that our schools continue to grow and thrive, and I believe I have the skills and experience to serve my community in this way.

Bogart: I have four kids in the Roaring Fork School district, and they are my primary motivation for running. I was also very disappointed with how the 3Rs sex-d curriculum was adopted by the current school board. It showed a lack of transparency, no concern for the majority opinion of our community, and a lack of honest research to understand if this is the best curriculum. I am also concerned at our district’s below-average standardized test results within the state.

Ramirez: I am seeking re-election because I believe that I have the necessary knowledge and skills to contribute towards building a better future for our students. I am committed to using my experience and expertise to ensure that every student in our district receives a high-quality education that will prepare them for a successful future. As a mother of a child on the Autism Spectrum, I’m also passionate about ensuring all students and families have the best possible experience in our schools.

2. Tell us about your background

Kokish: I was raised in the 1970s and 80s in a multi-racial family in Northern California in a semi-communal environment. We gardened, recycled, composted, and practiced conservation because it was the right thing to do. I moved to Aspen in 1992 with simple dreams. I have fulfilled them all and so much more. I went from breakfast cook to burger flipper, to bartender, to line cook, to executive chef, to business owner. I’ve married and raised two kids; my daughter is a sophomore at Roaring Fork High School and my son is a freshman in college. Along the way, I fell in love with the Roaring Fork Valley and Colorado. The School District sets the tone for the Valley, educating tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. We should embrace Colorado’s uniqueness. Our policies should not emulate Texas, Florida, or California.

After: I live in Carbondale with my husband, Brion, and two young children who attend Crystal River Elementary School. I am a nonprofit leader, policy-wonk, librarian-by-training, and a fundraiser at RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute). I previously served as the President of the Mount Sopris Montessori Preschool Board and while there, I led the search and hiring of a new executive director. I was also previously on the Board at the Basalt Regional Library District. My family owns Independence Run & Hike and I have lived in the Valley since 2008. Originally from Cullowhee, North Carolina, I have my Masters Degree in Library Science and a Bachelor’s Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

DeFrates: I have lived in and around the Roaring Fork Valley for 18 years, and my husband and I are currently raising three kids here, all of whom attend Sopris Elementary School. For six years, I taught seventh- and eighth-grade language arts at Carbondale Middle School. Currently, I work as the Deputy Director of Public Relations at the Colorado River District, but like so many of us, I have spent time working in a variety of industries just to make ends meet in our weird little corner of the world. This means that I have been a camp counselor, a whitewater raft guide, a server at a local restaurant, an Outward Bound instructor, Youth Coordinator with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, a freelance writer, and an adjunct instructor for Colorado Mountain College’s adult education classes and Link to Success program.

Bogart: I have had a career in the hotel, restaurant and rental management industry for about 20 years. My wife and I have also been foster parents for the past 7-8 years, in two different states. In my career, I have had the opportunity to lead diverse teams of people, write and manage budgets, and work with owners to approve and fund capital improvement projects.

Ramirez: I am the proud daughter and wife of immigrants. I graduated from GSHS in 2007 and have two children, three younger siblings, one niece, and three nephews, who have attended or are attending our public schools. In my professional role, I work for School Board Partners, a national organization that provides training and support to school board members to equip them with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to lead with courage, competence and impact.

3. What is something that you want the community to know about you?

Kokish: I object to the current sex education/gender studies curriculum because it introduces concepts that I think are best introduced at home and it introduces them far too early. Because of that, I’ve been accused of being illiberal. Nothing could be further from the truth. My family and my circle of friends are filled with gay people, trans people, and people of color. One of my cousins began hormone treatment as a teenager. It did not bring them the happiness they expected. A close friend of mine’s trans daughter Erin recently committed suicide. The pain in his eyes is something no parent should have to face. My friend sees this curriculum as a beacon to our LGBTQ+ community. Our conversation led me to examine my opposition to this curriculum. As a district, we need a beacon to shine brightly. We need a curriculum and mental health structure that can support people like Erin, this curriculum is not it. I’m aware of how difficult life in our country can be for minorities. Whether I’m elected or not I will do what I can to help mitigate these kinds of tragedies. I do have strong opinions and I can be emotional. However, I pride myself on seeking out opinions differing from my own. I work to improve myself by engaging and learning from people.

After: Over the last few months, I have spoken to parents, teachers, staff, and community members about their concerns about our schools. Interestingly, there is not one single issue that comes up more than others. There are dozens of issues that people care about when it comes to our schools. These include: teacher retention and recruitment, executive leadership, the achievement gap, the annual budget, the upcoming Collaborative Bargaining Process with the teacher’s union, housing, special education, a safe haven policy, dual language curricula, the health curriculum, the absence policy, career and college readiness, universal Pre-K, and the strategic planning process, among many others. I have the experience, curiosity, patience, and persistence to help the District work on all of these issues, and more. I hope that voters will ask themselves which candidates are adept and ready to work together toward making our schools tackle the many challenges and opportunities that RFSD faces every day. Without doing so, we will not be able to prepare students to thrive in a changing world. With so much at stake, this is an exciting time to be part of the RFSD and I hope that voters will give me an opportunity to help lead!

DeFrates: I grew up in the suburbs of Virginia and my grandmother worked on the planning and zoning commission there for over 20 years there. Sometimes, my parents forced me to go to the meetings as a child and at the time, I considered it cruel and unusual punishment. But her tenure there coincided with the difficult transition of much of that county from agricultural land to business and housing developments as the population in central Virginia boomed. I know that it was hard for her to watch her childhood home change so much. She could have stuck her head in the sand and pretended like the change wasn’t inevitable and refused to participate, but she didn’t.

She showed up for every difficult conversation and insisted that developers adhere to a rigorous, intensive process that retained as much greenspace and included thorough and sensible plans for things like drainage and traffic flow. And because she kept showing up for those meetings, and kept engaging with the process, the change that occurred was positive and sustainable. I never thought I’d sign myself for those kinds of meetings, but I know now that community service is persistent, patient, and keeps the door open for the voices and perspectives which they may not always agree with.

Bogart: One of my main goals at this point in life is to be a faithful father and community member. If I am elected to be on the school board, I am committed to doing whatever I can to help improve our district’s ability to provide quality education.

Ramirez: I believe in equity, equality, justice, inclusion, access, and building communities centered around students, whom I consider our most important stakeholders. I firmly believe that by holding ourselves accountable for our student’s success in our schools, we can make a long-term impact on the future citizens and economy of our communities.

4. If elected, what is something that you are most focused on to help improve the school district?

Kokish: Entrepreneurial and vocational training will be an area of focus for me. College is enormously expensive and offers increasingly limited career paths. Equity means that those students who want to continue their education after high school have opportunities to do so, and those who want to enter the job market have opportunities to do so. If elected I’ll work to expand those opportunities for all students, college-bound or not. With the recent resignation of Dr. Rodriguez, we must start the search for a superintendent who desires to become (or already is) part of our community; a non-partisan educator who can effectively address the difficult tasks at hand.

After: With last week’s resignation by Dr. Rodriguez, the Board’s top responsibility will be to recruit and hire an excellent leader for the District. The District, the Board, and the community learned a lot about what we want to see in a leader during the last superintendent search and tenure. The District now has the collective experience and wisdom to select a long-lasting leader who focuses on the needs of the students, educators, and the community.

DeFrates: We need to hire a Superintendent who represents and loves this community and whose leadership vision and experience aligns with the values of this District. There is a lot of ground to make up between the board and the community in this area, and I will prioritize transparent communication throughout the search and hiring process.
In 2021, voters in the Roaring Fork School District generously approved a measure to increase teacher pay. Unfortunately, within less than two years, soaring rates of inflation and skyrocketing home and rent prices undermined the value of those pay increases, leaving the professionals who teach our children still struggling to afford to live and work in the same community.

I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure our District’s resources are going to support teachers and staff so that we can hire and retain experienced professionals.

Along with qualified leadership and teacher retention, we need to take direct and immediate measures to close the achievement gap between Latino and White students.

Bogart: If elected, I will focus on quality education for our kids, repeal of the 3Rs sex ed curriculum with the intention of finding something better, and enhancing school board transparency.

Ramirez: I plan to continue advocating for a third party to conduct an equity assessment as well as for the board to pass an equity policy. I am committed to prioritizing student success and solidifying our new Superintendent Evaluation Process as policy.

5. The human sexuality curriculum has been a major topic throughout the district since its adoption by the school board. Where do you stand in favor or opposition of the curriculum?

Kokish: The recently adopted sex-ed curriculum is largely a politically motivated gender studies program. The concept of gender is evolving. As adults, we are still figuring out how this discussion should take place. To affirmatively suggest to a first-grade boy that he may be a girl born with the wrong body parts or vice versa is very confusing, and most particularly so when done in school without parental involvement. This curriculum is well-intended, and I’m aware of the problems the district is trying to address. But it is untested with no data to support its good intent. Does the Roaring Fork Valley want to be a testing ground for introducing gender studies to our five, six and seven-year-olds?  Kindergarteners should be deciding what mud puddle to play in or whether they want grape or strawberry jelly on their sandwich; not what gender they might be. If elected I will work to adopt an inclusive, diverse, age-sensitive, and accepting approach that our entire community will be more able to embrace.

After: I support the health curriculum that was approved unanimously by the current board. I support it because it provides health instruction in the early years using correct anatomical terminology. This knowledge will help children distinguish between safe and unsafe behavior. I also appreciate that the curriculum is available in Spanish, it supports LGBT and gender non-conforming students, and it was recommended by a committee of subject matter and education experts. 

DeFrates: The Comprehensive Human Sexuality Curriculum was chosen by a group of teachers, parents and community members after an extensive curriculum search and evaluation, and it was adopted by the school District last winter. The materials and content in this curriculum are scientifically accurate and align with state mandates requiring that no curriculum discriminate against any gender identity or sexual orientation. Research shows us that comprehensive sexual education is an essential part of reducing unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Inclusive language and honest conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation is also a part of supporting the mental health of our students.

Bogart: The 3 Rs’ Roaring Fork School District elections Q/Acurriculum covers inappropriate and confusing topics in early elementary grade levels, the content at many age levels is far too graphic and pornographic, and the curriculum tends to undermine parent input and family values. This curriculum is sexualizing kids and pushing a hyper-liberal political agenda that has no place in our public schools. 

Ramirez: I support the newly adopted curriculum. I believe the district should have a uniform district-wide sex-ed curriculum taught by trained professionals as well as a clear and updated opt-out regulation and process in place to ensure parents have the final say on this matter.

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